Issa: We could have done better

When he became chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee six months ago, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was gangbusters to go after waste and corruption in the federal government.

Now Issa has been forced to reassess and admit that his committee “didn’t do as well as we could have” as he tries to move an effective agenda forward.

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When the Republicans came to power in the House, Issa presented a laundry list of issues he planned to have the committee look into. After all, Issa’s power of subpoena designated him as the Republican point man for scrutinizing the Obama administration. 

But in the ensuing months, Issa’s committee has had difficulty finding issues that stick, beyond sound bites and flash headlines. Hampered by the organizational and political challenges that come with leading the panel, his sprint to find areas of waste, fraud and abuse within the federal government has been cut down to a slow jog. 

“I’m a brand-new chairman; this is a brand-new majority,” Issa said at a recent markup of the committee’s six-month advisory report. “We didn’t do as well as we could have. We want to do better.

“I reach out to you and ask you, please help us do better,” he said, directing his comments toward committee Democrats. “But also realize that it’s our turn to lead and we have to do the best we can, so it’s what you find that we can agree to, that we can work on, that’s most important.”

Issa’s comments came at the end of one of the committee’s most amicable, and arguably one of its most productive, hearings to date. Both parties voted to approve three bills — one of which would establish an independent body to track federal spending, which Issa’s office holds as a top priority. For Issa and the panel’s Democrats, it signaled a shift in the partisan tides that dominated the committee’s first six months. 

“This, today, was an example of what we can accomplish,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.). “Mr. Chairman, I’m looking forward to the next six-month report. The rhetoric is nice, [the] talk is nice, [but] the question is, ‘What do we achieve?’ And I believe that we have now laid a foundation and we can achieve a lot.”

The exchange was a pleasant surprise for many of the committee’s Democrats, who have traded words and political blows with Issa since before he took the panel’s helm.

In October, Issa told Rush Limbaugh on his radio show that President Obama “has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” Issa later corrected himself on CNN’s “State of the Union,” asserting that he meant to say, “This is one of the most corrupt administrations.” 

The committee has been one of the most contentious in Congress, especially when the opposite party of the White House controls it. But Issa’s comments seemed to herald new levels of discord.

Cummings worried Issa might try to use his subpoena power to pursue an agenda even if the facts didn’t support it. 

“[It’s] a problem when you come to these conclusions before you even bring people in,” Cummings said.

Contentiousness has continued between Issa and Cummings, with the chairman’s office often referring to the minority member as an impediment to oversight of the Obama administration.

“Ranking member Cummings is the lead blocker of oversight for the White House, and this often puts him at odds with the chairman’s efforts to hold government accountable,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa.

In one of Issa’s first investigations of the Obama administration, he took aim at the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) office that handles Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and claims that it was allowing political appointees to censor the agency’s responses. 

Issa lauded the investigation as a success, after exposing several non-political instances in which the DHS office had altered or censored wording in its releases to avoid embarrassment. 

The issue put an uncomfortable spotlight on Obama, who committed to bring an unparalleled level of transparency to the White House. 

But an inspector general report found that the agency did not use unfair or illegal political practices when releasing FOIA requests. And in the end, the investigation produced more sizzle — Issa said the FOIA process “reeks of a Nixonian enemies list” — than substance.

Dean Zerbe, a former investigator for Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, said it typically takes at least six months to get a committee’s investigative staff up to speed. 

“There was an expectation that there was going to be a rocket coming out, and I think he had to realize that when you’re doing oversight it’s a more of a methodical process,” said Zerbe.

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Zerbe pointed to Issa’s more recent investigation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) controversial gun-tracking operation, Fast and Furious.

Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have doggedly pressed the administration to uncover who authorized the operation, which might have contributed to the death of at least one federal agent. The investigation appears to be the committee’s first major substantive investigation that holds potential for effecting real change and improving lives, said Zerbe.

Entrenched within Issa’s chairmanship is his eight-person press team that works tirelessly, sending out a constant stream of statements and posting more than 400 videos to the committee’s majority YouTube channel. The committee has nearly 80 staff members working for it. 

Some of those videos bash Democrats on issues such as healthcare or gas prices, which the committee has not focused on, and as a result have raised concerns among the panel’s Democratic staffers, who point to the blurring of the lines between Issa’s political goals and his responsibilities as committee chairman.

Issa’s spokesman defended the videos, saying they are part of the lawmaker’s attempt to connect and gain feedback . 

“Every committee and member is working to develop a stronger online presence and the committee’s broad oversight jurisdiction lends itself to creatively engage citizens online on a number of different issues,” said Hill.